Not the Time For Needlepunch

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | March 17, 2009

with their major market in dire straits, makers of needlepunched nonwovens are preparing for better days

The unraveling of the automotives market has presented major challenges for manufacturers of needlepunched nonwovens. Many of this market’s major players reported that automotives sales have at times comprised as much as half of their business. For them, fewer auto sales have meant lessened demand as they watch with interest how Washington deals with Detroit.

    “Many car makers had a lot of inventory so they have had to really put the brakes on production levels,” said Jørgen Bech Madsen, CEO of Fibertex’s industiral division. “Now, many plants are working at  half or three quarter time to ease this overcapacity situation.”

    In describing conditions in the needlepunch market, Mr. Madsen said  you have to look at the situation before September—when the banking crisis began in the U.S.-and after September. Since then, it has been only the companies with enough foresight to predict market downturns who have been successful. Fibertex, for instance, had already undergone  a large-scale restructuring plan in 2008. This included the movement   of labor-intensive operations from Denmark to the Czech Republic as well as the replacement of older equipment with more efficient modern machines. “We have two modern and lean manufacturing sites in Europe—one in Denmark and another in the Czech Republic. This means that we are very competitive in terms of products and new innovations as well as costs.”    

    Therefore, Fibertex is confident that not only will it be able to survive until the economic crisis is over, its business will be set to rebound. In fact, it is many experts’ opinion that all that can be done in these challenging times is to prepare for better times.

    One major needlepunch producer, however, may not be so lucky. Propex Fabrics, which is a combination of the former Amoco Fabrics and Fibers and SI Industries and once one of the largest needlepunch makers in the U.S., is expected to be sold in a bankruptcy court auction this month, about 14 months after filing chapter 11 bankruptcy protection citing a general economic decline and rising raw material prices as contributing factors. At the time of its protection filing, Propex listed debt of $231 million.

    According to reports, the sale of Propex is tied to a $65 million loan being offered by Wayzata Investment Partners, an investment house that already holds 19% of its prebankruptcy debt.

Waiting For Rebound

Like nearly all businesses today, the needlepunch market is doing what it can to keep its head above water while preparing itself for future growth. While orders are short of supply currently, those familiar with the dynamics of the automotives business know how quickly the tables can turn. “What we are seeing at the moment is that our customers are not buying as much as expected but there is a lot of research and development going on, there is a lot of focus on how to succeed in the future,” Mr. Madsen said. “A lot of people are planning big expansions once the crisis is over. The question is when will it end.”

    Looking at the business from the machinist’s point of view, Stefan Schlichter, head of Oerlikon Neumag’s carding division, agreed. “There has been some postponement of business because of the economy but we have been busy helping customers outline new lines because in specific areas like automotives you have to be ready when the car industry is ready,” he said. “You only have limited time to have a product ready. For now, however, intensive discussions about projects have not led to major order placement. Instead, they say sorry we have to postpone our business and just want to know what is the shortest delivery time.”

  Besides some major line orders, which filled the order books for 2009 quite reasonable Oerlikon’s current focus is customer service, helping its existing customers make the most of their new lines. “We give recommendations for modernization,” Dr. Schlichter said. “We analyze their line set-ups and help them make improvements to better utilize them without making the investment in a whole new line.”    

    A relative newcomer in needlepunch lines, Oerlikon entered the market through its purchase of Fehrer in 2005 and already counts such prominent nonwovens companies as Fibertex, Freudenberg and Ahls­trom as its customers. Dr. Schlichter said this success can largely be attributed to its investment in a technology showroom.
    “We probably have the most expensive showroom in all of carding but this has helped us win over customers. Selling complete carding/needlepunching lines to Freudenberg and Ahlstrom were both based on a trial,” he added.    

    Oerlikon’s ability to modify its lines to custom fit its clients’ needs has also been a factor in its success. “We determine what makes the most sense for your product and your business. We look at the way the line interfaces with the building as well as with any other equipment that is being included,” Dr. Schlichter said

Not All Bad

The good news for needlepunch is that people will still buy cars, regardless of what happens to General Motors or to the economy in general. And, as automakers seek lighter and more ecofriendly materials, needlepunch will oftentimes be the answer.

    “The other thing happening in the industry is that more and more needlepunched nonwovens are getting into the interior of the car,” said Dave Rowell of needlepuncher Foss Manufacturing. “Even though fewer automotives are being made, there is a higher percentage of needlepunch per car because they are thinner and they mold better than other materials. The yardage per vehicle of nonwovens has doubled in the past three years, caused by improvements in the aesthetics of the material at about half the price.”

    Of course, there are many other application areas for needlepunch beyond automotives—geotextiles, home furnishings, protective—and current conditions have led to a push toward market diversification for some nonwovens producers. The result has been needlepunched wipes, an expansion of printed substrates and growth of needlpunched filtration media, to name a few.

    “In general, we believe that the needlepunch technology needs to be developed further or become more varied in order to remain competitive and a successful alternative to other technologies,” said Eveline Salem-Geser, marketing manager of roll goods specialist Norafin. Therefore, Norafin has started to expand its after­treatment options for its needled filtration, homecare and cosmetic applications and has begun to quilt materials to combine woven and needlepunched nonwoven layers.

    Norafin’s special dot coating allows the company to offer abrasive materials to the cosmetic as well as the industrial cleaning industry. “If the dot coating technology is applied to its needlepunch material and then combined with a rubber lining, anti-slip protection and good grip can be created for further uses,” she continued. “In filtration, binders are used to allow a certain material stiffness for the pleating of the needled media, which—in our case—is primarily needed for cartridge filters or HVAC filter materials. For the HVAC market, we are developing a range of coated needlepunch materials, initially targeting the MERV 7 and 8 efficiency ranges.”

    These materials consistently meet or exceed filtration efficiency and dust holding capacity requirements while being self-supporting, low weight and aesthetically pleasing. With novel aftertreatments, additional performance attributes can be imparted including custom coloration, antimicrobial treatments and odor adsorption performance.

    Ahlstrom has also been applying its needlepunch technology—including its recently added Oerlikon line—to the filtration market, namely in baghouse felts. While this market has been hit hard by the general economic slowdown, which has hurt a lot of users of these materials, like cement, asphalt and wood suppliers, executives are hopeful that infrastructure improvements outlined in the Obama administration’s stimulus plan will revitalize many of these industries, according to Jerome Barrillon, vice president and general manager, air and liquid filtration for Ahlstrom.

    “Current conditions have really forced us to look at every aspect of our cost structure. You have to really take a good look at your operation so that you are ready to rebound when conditions improve.”

    Shutting down lines, or trimming capacity, can be a risky undertaking because it leaves you unprepared for the market rebound. Not so risky, however, is restructuring and modernizing operations. Like Fibertex, Ahlstrom entered these challenging times already a lean operation having just shut down a site in Bellingham, MA and moved two lines to Bethune, SC. Additionally, its new Oerlikon line is efficient and flexible, two important traits in today’s environment. “The key measurement is pounds per hour and waste; how wide and how fast you are able to do it,” Mr. Barrillon said. “The trick is also flexibility in what fibers you need. In this market you need to use all types of fibers—PET, aramid, PPS—in an efficient manner.    

    Speaking of efficiency, last year needlepunch specialist NSC Nonwovens began offering new machinery for medium capacity markets so potential customers could enter new markets without significant investment. Axcess A.30 range of needlepunched lines maintains the same quality standards of NSC’s high capacity Excelle nonwoven lines at a lower point of entry.

    According to executives, this new entry comes at an important time for the industry since the vast majority of nonwovens producers are eagerly looking for niche markets with added value. The market trend is clearly showing increasing investments worldwide using the tryaid process. The ability to provide alternative lines that enable the customer to purchase the needed capacity at a price point relative to their productive needs without sacrificing engineering quality enables manufacturers in both niche and  emerging markets to expand or enter into needlepunch nonwovens with economies of scale relative to their needs.”

    Meanwhile, another needleloom supplier, Dilo, has been focusing efforts on helping its customers reduce fiber consumption with its Profiline CV1. This line positions lightweight areas of the web exactly at the layering edges in order to pre-compensate for the thickening of the edges during the needling process; it is further controlled by its newly developed Proximax unit, a scanning system for the weight profile as part of a closed-loop control system using only two or three scanning units. Adding further to this is the VentoFeed, a universal card feeder for any working width for the fine-to-medium fiber fineness range. It is designed for highest throughput capacity at best levels of matte uniformity. A unique design is the fiber supply feeds directly to the chute by means of two feeding tubes helping to fill the upper trunk evenly. The upper trunk includes a self-regulation system to control the tuft level in height and cross distribution by ventilation combs.

    Dilo’s hyperneedling process allows the production of lightweight felts made from fine fibers at an area mass as low as 30 gpsm with high throughput speeds above 100 meters per minute. The product is a soft, drapable sheet with a homgenous surface without the typical needling markets. Products made through the process are being used in medicine, hygiene, synthetic leather, interlinings and filter media. Additionally, aspects of environmental protection have motivated the development of the hyperneedling technology, according to the company.

    The ability to lessen weights and reduce raw material consumption is important to needlepunch makers and consumers who need every advantage they can get in today’s business climate. However, these efforts need to be achieved without sacrificing cost, Norafin’s Ms. Salem-Geser explained.

    “Due to cost pressure and the need to increase efficiency, there is a tendency for needlepunch technology to move toward faster line speeds and lighter weight materials,” she said. “As many needlepunch suppliers also compete against spunlace or spundbond producers, there is an additional need to create an increase in efficiency. However, if the weight of needlepunch products is decreased, their product quality is reduced too, unfortunately. Therefore, the possible benefit of lightweight needlepunch materials always needs to be balanced out.”

    The ability to offer customers more flexibility and choice is also a driving factor for machinery suppliers. At Oerlikon, this has resulted in the development of a modular card that allows customers to easily retrofit machines to meet changing needs. “It is all about the customizable needlepunch designs,” Mr. Schlichter said.  “We can customize to the needs of the customers.”

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